“Life has no meaning in itself but it is itself an opportunity to make it meaningful.”

Pema Yangchen passed this one on to me today, having spotted it on Facebook.

Once a man asked to Buddha “What is the meaning of life?” Buddha simply exclaimed “Life has no meaning in itself but it is itself an opportunity to make it meaningful.”

It’s completely bogus of course. There’s certainly nothing in the Pali canon where the Buddha talks about the “meaning of life,” “the secret of existence,” etc.

The phrase, “the meaning of life,” is actually quite modern, at least in English. Using Google Books I haven’t found any instances of that expression before the mid-1800s. In a journal called “The National Preacher and Village Pulpit,” there’s the following passage in an essay on “Christian Perfection,” by an Amherst professor, the Rev. J. H. Seelye:

[T]he most literal, and perhaps also the most characteristic meaning of life, is an inner energy which is. constantly passing onward and reaching toward an end or consummation.

In an 1853 book, “Hopes and helps for the young of both sexes,” by George Sumner Weaver, we can read:

No youth who has learned the meaning of life is ambitious to fill the place of such people [whose lives lack an object]. Are you, my reader? But let us ask, what is the purpose of life? We answer, it is the formation of a genuine character.

All the earliest references to the “meaning of life” come from a Christian context, at a time when Christianity was emphasizing the development of character.

This makes this quote rather ironic: what does it say about someone’s character that they think it’s acceptable to fabricate a quote and put it in the mouth of the Buddha? I’ve argued that there’s a case for doing this in the context of dramatizing the Dharma, as when a teacher is recounting a story from the Buddhist tradition. But in such cases the words put in the Buddha’s mouth are paraphrases of things he did, according to the scriptures, actually say. In the case of “Life has no meaning in itself but it is itself an opportunity to make it meaningful,” there’s no such justification.

As for the origins of this quote: I don’t know, but strongly suspect that this is an adaptation of something Osho (formerly the Bhagwan Shree Rajnesh) said: “Life has no meaning in itself, you have to bring meaning into it.” (“Dang Dang Doko Dang: The Sound of the Empty Drum.”)

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3 thoughts on ““Life has no meaning in itself but it is itself an opportunity to make it meaningful.””

  1. Just a small correction- Amherst, not Emherst. He was for a time President of the college in western Massachusetts.

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